At 514 pages, The Girl Who Played with Fire is one of the longest mysteries I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the saddest, in that author Stieg Larsson died suddenly in 2004.
The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second book in the “Millennium” trilogy, sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is a final book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which, though evidently translated from the Swedish, is unavailable in the United States. European readers have had better luck learning more about Larsson’s puzzling protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, and her associates. Looked at another way, stateside readers are lucky: we still have a final Larsson book to look forward to.
I confess coming to this book dually disadvantaged: I have not read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nor am I usually a mystery fan. So it’s testament to how fine The Girl Who Played with Fire is that I was completely sucked in, and read obsessively until I finished it.
Larsson’s creation, Lisbeth Salander, is rather like a feral combination of William Gibson’s Cayce Pollard and Michel Faber’s Isserly (Haven’t read Under the Skin? Go to your nearest bookstore and buy it. Now.) At four feet tall and an underdeveloped 88 pounds, Salander is incapable of most human interaction. But when confronted with threatening or violent behavior, she responds with an almost inhuman ferocity.
Her diminutive size is no drawback: this 26-year-old woman can decimate a man three times her size, and as the novel progresses, she often does. Left to herself—her preferred state—she is a computer hacker of astonishing talent. She is also gifted at mathematics, puzzles, and chess. Yet for all this, she is abrupt, rude, and nearly friendless. One character suggests Salander falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and until the novel’s ending, the reader agrees.
The book begins with Salander in Grenada, aimlessly traveling after her encounter with writer Mikael Blomkvist—a series of events recounted in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—has ended. After hacking into the bank account of a corrupt financier, Salander is financially secure and need not work. Yet she is adrift. After having worked for Dragan Armansky at a private security firm, now she has moved on… to nothing.
She is traveling, bored, and trying to shake Mikael Blomkvist. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander not only saved his life, but cleared his name of libel, making him both famous and respected throughout Sweden. The two also had a relationship; Salander fell in love with Blomkvist. Horrified at herself, she never divulged her feelings, opting instead to sever all contact with him.
Blomkvist, now a writer and publisher at Millennium Magazine, doesn’t understand why Salander has cut him off, but decides to respect her position. She is, after all, an utterly inscrutable being. He returns to writing, passionate about exposing wrongdoing, a stance that unwittingly leads the pair into terrible trouble.
As Salander returns to Sweden and tries to establish a life for herself, Blomkvist meets writer Dag Svensson, who approaches Millennium with the scoop of a lifetime: an exposé of the Swedish sex trade. Svensson and his girlfriend, Mia Johansson, have spent years investigating Sweden’s sexual underworld, interviewing women smuggled from Russia to Sweden, where they were forced into prostitution. Many of the women were only teenagers at the time. Those who tried to fight were killed.
Yet the police are strangely indifferent, dismissing the women as worthless whores. Why spend time and money on them?
Larsson, a passionate advocate of human rights, uses The Girl Who Played with Fire to slam home the abuse of women: the prostitute Irina P, brutally beaten to death, her body dumped; Lisbeth herself, raped and beaten by Nils Bjurman, her court guardian; the nameless girls used without a thought by men working in Sweden’s highest courts, police departments, and government offices.
Blomkvist, impressed by Svensson and Johansson’s painstaking work, agrees to publish Svensson’s book, which will expose countless “punters” (the book’s term) to public scrutiny while shining a light into society’s darkest corner. But before the book reaches publication, Svensson and Johansson are murdered in their apartment. And Lisbeth Salander is the prime suspect.
From here the book gallops off into multiple directions. At one point I gave up trying to remember who was who and just read. The Girl Who Played with Fire has a nearly Dostoyevskian list of characters, whom some may find it hard to keep track of. And Larsson is a relentless chronicler of domestic details. Each character, no matter how minor, is minutely described: their appearance, what they wear, what they drive, the sort of living quarters they inhabit, their preferred food and drink.
While fascinating—this is why literature junkies read: to learn more about other people—at times the extended description adds to the confusion. Was this the motorcycle gang member? The giant German? The junior Millennium reporter?
Never mind. One question: do Swedes really drink that much coffee? Every character is either brewing coffee or quaffing it, regardless of the hour. Caffè Lattes have a huge role in the book. And where Dostoyevsky’s characters, from the lowliest washerwoman to Raskolnikov, all crop up again, Larsson leaves some loose ends. Whether this was due to his death or the translation is unknown.
As Salander hides out, enraged and horrified, three investigations into the murders ramp up. The first, led by Inspector Jan Bublanski, was the only part of The Girl Who Played with Fire that made me want to scream. Bublanski, we’re told, is a Jew who is considered “a bit odd” by his colleagues, because, “On certain high holy days (sic) he had been seen wearing a skullcap in police headquarters…But he was not so orthodox (sic) that he refused to work on the Sabbath.” We are also told Bublanksi belongs to the “Söder congregation” and keeps strictly kosher.
A Jew religious enough to wear a “skullcap” (we call them yarmulkes, or, if you are Israeli, a kipa) on “high holy days”—those lowercase h’s should be capitalized—would never set foot in police headquarters during said holidays. He would be at the Synagogue. And a man religious enough to keep kosher and observe the High Holidays would likely observe the capital “S” Sabbath; that is, no work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. For an otherwise meticulous author, this is a gross error.
Okay, I had to say it. Back to our regularly scheduled review.
Dragan Armansky, Salander’s former employer, cannot believe his protégé, however odd, would kill innocent people, and launches an investigation of his own, one that overlaps with Bublanski’s as the men share officers. Then there is Blomkvist, convinced from the outset that Salander is innocent. He turns his energies toward investigating the Svensson/Johansson murders, interviewing all the punters named in Svensson’s manuscript. Some unsavory people begin surfacing, both within Sweden’s elite and outside it; one, Zala, or Zalachenko, elicits outright terror from the few interviewees who dare breathe his name.
The case grows increasingly complex, involving nasty Russians, the aforementioned giant German, and the Svavalsjö Motorcycle club—an unpleasant collection of fellows well-known to the Swedish police.
As the investigation moves forward, we learn more about Salander’s awful childhood. The daughter of a single mother and an abusive father (whose identity is revealed at the book’s end), Salander endured much suffering before an event called “all that evil” transpired. We eventually learn what “all that evil” was, why it happened, and why the adult Salander is a near-savant. After “all that evil”, Salander, then 12, was declared insane and made a ward of the court, passed from an institution to various caretakers to Nils Bjurman, the lawyer who rapes her.
Salander exacts revenge, yet remains a ward of the court, a status that does little to help her case. Attempts by all three sets of investigators to gain access to her files reveals incomplete documentation: entire years are mysteriously missing. Why are Salander’s files so cautiously guarded? And who is hiding the missing papers?
Larsson adds some strong female supporting characters: Miriam “Mimmi” Wu, an outspoken lesbian who is Salander’s sometime lover and perhaps the closest Salander has to a friend, Erika Berger, Millennium’s senior editor and Blomkvist’s longtime lover, Sonja Modig, Bublanski’s second-in-command and one of the sharpest officers on the case. Interestingly, Wu, Berger, and Salander are all sexually liberal—that is, they take a hearty interest in a wide variety of sexual behaviors.
Wu is an LGBT activist with a fondness for consensual S & M. Berger, though happily married to artist Greger Beckman, has a powerful sex drive she sates by sleeping with both Blomkvist and Beckman, with her husband’s full consent. Salander doesn’t much discriminate between sexes, though her relationship with Wu is a powerful one that transcends sheer physicality. However unusual some readers may find these women, their freedom contrasts sharply with the immigrants forced into prostitution.
The Girl Who Played with Fire moves rapidly to its dénouement, keeping readers turning the pages as the investigations cross, overlap, and finally converge. For all that, the ending is abrupt, leaving me wondering about Larsson’s intentions. What happens to Salander? Blomkvist? Is more explained in the third installment? Did death interrupt the manuscript? We’ll have to wait for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest to find out.